How do you portray genius on the screen, if all you have to work with are gifted, but ordinary, humans? If the genius is a real person — a Mozart, Beethoven or John “A Beautiful Mind” Nash — the job becomes fairly straightforward: Cast an actor who can suggest the original subject physically and emotionally. Add samples from the original’s work (operas, symphonies, equations) and — voila.
But what if your genius is based on a comic-book character? One approach is that of Kenichi Matsuyama, who played the “genius” detective L in the two “Death Note” films as a study in eccentricity, with his languorous manner, pasty face, kohl-rimmed eyes and ever-present sweets.
Matsuyama’s performance was not only the best thing in the films — but started something of a fad, with fans dressing up as the character, complete with an all-day sucker, for Halloween last year.
It was, however, decidedly cartoony, which Riko Narumi’s turn as a 13-year-old piano prodigy in the new Koji Hagiuda drama “Shindo” is definitely not. Called Uta (literally, “Song”), she appears to be a normal-enough junior high schooler, until you get a good look at her eyes. Narumi, a veteran child actor who was her character’s age at the time of filming, has the sort of abstracted stare (or, at times, glare) that is at once penetrating and distant, as though she is operating on a different, higher wavelength from the other 99.99 percent of humanity, while permanently tuned to Station Mozart.
This is not an easy persona to sustain for nearly every scene of a two-hour film, but Narumi manages it without strain, which leads me to think she is something of a prodigy herself.
The story, based on a manga by Akira Saso, is more of a stretch, though it supplies unusual twists on its classical-musician-makes-good plot line. First, of all, Uta has no intention of making good. A prodigy who could read music before she could talk, she has been in a funk since the disappearance of her pianist father, who left on a foreign concert tour and never returned.
Her mother (Satomi Tezuka) frets as she blows off her lessons, but the only piano Uta really wants to play is her father’s, left in the house they were forced to abandon, for financial reasons, after his disappearance.
She strikes up an age-inappropriate friendship with Wao (Kenichi Matsuyama, again), the 19-year-old son of a couple who run a vegetable shop. He wants desperately to enter an arts university and study piano, but he is less a player than a banger. Uta mocks his clumsiness, but likes his passion and becomes his unofficial coach and cheerleader.
The film’s focus, however, is less on Wao’s struggle to escape his fate as a vegetable seller, more on Uta’s reluctance to accept her father’s death — and her own musical gift.
Hagiuda, a TV documentary and drama director whose feature credits include the indie dramas “Paradise Sea” (1998) and “Kikyo (Going Home)” (2004) does not force this story into formulaic grooves. Instead, he and scriptwriter Kousuke Mukai let it ramble, as Uta deals the usual adolescent tsoris, such as the semicomic attentions of a shorter upper-class man, as well as a not-so-usual bout of tinnitus.
Meanwhile, Wao endures his own professional and personal crises: Dumped by an old flame and scorned by a snotty piano teacher at the university, he finds support in a dishy music student (Shihori Kanjiya) and two old hippie profs (Kazuyoshi Kushida, Hideko Yoshida) who dig his earnest style.
Finally, in the third act, comes a big, unexpected — and risky — opportunity for Uta. Her most important task, however, is still to make her separate peace with the past.
The music is a mix of classical standards and the simple-but-infectious theme song by Mito of the pop group Clammbon. One would expect Uta to let loose with the piano pyrotechnics, but for most of the film she keeps the technical lid on, communicating her talent more through virtuoso flourishes and emotional flashes. Classical fans, however, will have much to listen to (including Wao’s pounding) — “Shindo” even bills itself as the first true Japanese classical music film.
The reason to see it, though, is Narumi’s performance, which is forceful, but somehow mysterious, like the fierce-eyed girls painted by Yoshitomo Nara. She doesn’t quite live up to the formidable title, whose characters mean “god child” — but who could? A 13-year-old Mozart, maybe — but where are you going to find his CDs?